New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2014. 240 pages. $26.00.
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In his second novel, The Betrayers, David Bezmozgis has crafted an epic contained in a thimble: he has distilled forty years of political intrigue, disloyalty and confinement into a compact volume that aims to needle the concepts of birthright and personal integrity. It’s the kind of literature best consumed in a single gulp, a smart narrative that propels itself through equal parts grace and airport-paperback urgency, a book that takes care in its employment of language, and one that sends ripples across the reader’s mind for days.
As the story opens, Baruch Kotler—ex-Soviet activist, onetime political prisoner, and current Israeli Minister of Trade—and his much younger lover, Leora Rosenberg, abscond to Crimea from Jerusalem after Kotler’s political opponents publicly expose the couple’s romance. The problem? Kotler’s refusal to support a government ruling to break apart a settlement block. Also, Kotler is married, with two children, and Leora is one of his assistants. Along the Black Sea, the runaway pair is immersed in sudden anonymity, and Kotler, lost in memories of his childhood vacations to Crimea, decides to rent a room from a Yaltan local named Svetlana, who fails to recognize him during their transaction. This nameless freedom continues as Kotler and Leora unpack, dine out, walk along the water, and haggle with taxi drivers, but their respite is cut short when Kotler realizes that Svetlana’s husband is none other than Vladimir Tankilevich, the man responsible for Kotler’s stay in the KGB gulag decades earlier.
Bezmozgis hinges his novel on an admittedly ludicrous coincidence—of all the people, Kotler just happens to rent a room from the wife of a sworn enemy—yet Kotler’s accidental encounter with Tankilevich never reads as a gimmick. Most of this success comes from The Betrayers’ fleeting physical timeline. While Bezmozgis does devote large chunks of the novel to explaining both Kotler and Tankilevich’s past struggles and victories, less than forty-eight actual hours transpire between Kotler and Leora’s arrival in Crimea and their departure. By pinning such a tight agenda to his characters, the author prevents any opportunity for narrative laziness.
As a result, every action holds purpose. Together under one roof, and seeing each other for the first time in nearly forty years, Kotler and Tankilevich are forced to revisit a shared history while attempting to smother their own external struggles: Kotler must decide how to approach his wife and children; Tankilevich finds mêlées with the local Hesed are leaving him in physical and financial pain. Though the men only converse briefly, Bezmozgis fills the page with rich, pointed dialogue. Take the beginning of their confrontation, as Kotler approaches Tankilevich while the man empties his chicken coop of eggs:
—I see you have your own little kibbutz.
—Oh yes, it’s some kibbutz, Tankilevich said. We’re four chickens from the grave.
—That’s a lot of kibbutzes today.
—I agree, Kotler said.
—How nice. Is that all? Or is there more you came to say?
In six lines of dialogue, Bezmozgis sets the tone, fashioning personality out of mundane observation: Kotler’s guarded superiority comes across instantly, as does Tankilevich’s sarcasm. The repetition of “kibbutz,” in addition, helps establish the rhythm for the men’s inevitable argument.
But lines like these do more than simply confirm character disposition. They begin to expose similarities between enemies. After all, these two men are the “betrayers” mentioned in the book’s title—Kotler betrays his wife and children through his affair. Tankilevich betrays Kotler and his Zionistic brothers and beliefs in turning Kotler in so many years earlier. In this exchange, Bezmozgis exposes a parallel pessimistic worldview shared by both men. Within these words, he interlaces the idea that each man’s life is, in its own way, a kind of prison. Tankilevich, due to his youthful actions, lives in poverty and fear, wishing to relocate to Israel but knowing he will never be accepted. He spends his days relying on the help of the local Hesed, who protects his identity while also exploiting him for its own benefit. Meanwhile, Kotler perceives his own life as a perpetual series of scandals, alternating between love and hate, “[o]f which the world will accept an infinite number.” He is a metaphorical Sisyphus, with each scandal adding length to his never-ending climb.
Though built around a risky narrative trick, The Betrayers prevails because it does not seek to resolve its conflicts as easily as it introduces them to the reader. Bezmozgis’s four principals are complex mosaics that cannot find true happiness with the mere application of a Band-Aid. As a consequence, the novel exists in a gray area that closely resembles that of everyday life, where small gestures result in small solutions, where personal integrity wavers in the wind, and where the labor for a place at the table can be the toughest fight of all. Bezmozgis has written a poignant, timely novel.